I’ve got quite a lot of African music these days.* I bought the first CD (The Rough Guide To The Music of Kenya and Tanzania) some years ago because I had fond memories of the music I remembered them playing on buses in East Africa, a style of music I now know is called soukous.
It was only really when I started getting music from the internet that my selection of African music moved from one or two CDs to hundreds of songs, much of it downloaded from mp3 blogs but also quite a lot I paid for – Calabash particularly made it easier. Now that I have enough that it comes up on iTunes quite often, the initial touristy, exotic quality has worn off a bit and I just find it hard to believe that this stuff is so far below the cultural radar in the UK. It’s not difficult music for the Western ear in the way that music from North Africa or Asia can be; I mean, it has a distinctly African quality to it, and that’s part of the charm, just as a sense of place is part of the charm of reggae, or country music. But most of it is to some degree or another derived from familiar genres – jazz, Latin, funk, or whatever. And indeed reggae and hip hop, for the more recent stuff. And the best of it is just very good music.
I wouldn’t expect an African band to have a string of hit singles in the UK, but there’s a complete absence from the fringes of the fringes of the mainstream of even one act that a man in the street might be able to name. It just seems ridiculous. Indeed, the whole of African music hardly even gets its own genre – instead it’s bundled into the ghetto of ‘world music’ along with French chansons, dub remixes of Finnish folk songs and the Spanish klezmer.
My point isn’t really about African music. If I have a point. It’s that unwillingness to reach out beyond the culture you happen to have been born into. It’s the same complaint people have about the lack of translated novels for sale. I don’t think it’s anything as decisive as the rejection of other cultures, just a complete absence of interest.
Oh well. If the English can learn to enjoy garlic and spicy food, who knows where we’ll end. Maybe in a few years the hottest new tunes from the dancefloors of Kinshasa will go straight to the jukebox of the Dog and Duck.